Stop Calling David Fincher a “Control Freak”

As you may have heard, David Fincher’s terrific adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl premiered last weekend at the New York Film Festival. So your film editor was perusing some of the coverage of that premiere, like ya do, when I came upon Anne Thompson’s analysis of the “Three Reasons to Worry About Gone Girl.” She mostly examines the film’s chances at box office success and Oscar gold (ugh), but this is the line that jumped out at me: “Fincher was being typically controlling during the press conference, exhorting the press to hide Gone Girl plot spoilers — while the bestseller is still flying off bookshelves — and refusing to allow anyone to record the NYFF press conference.” It’s not often that you see three consecutive inaccuracies in the same sentence, but that’s what happens when you have to conform your facts to a preexisting narrative — in this case, that Fincher is some sort of cruel, demented control freak. It’s a narrative that’s been floating around for a while now, and the more you think about it, the sillier it is.

First off, to be clear, speaking as someone who was in the first row of that press conference: Fincher wasn’t being “controlling” (typically or otherwise) during the 35-minute news conference following Gone Girl’s press and industry screening. He barely talked through the first half of it; when he did discuss “spoilers,” he did so jokingly, most memorably in a very funny back-and-forth with Rosamund Pike that culminated with her telling the assembled press core, “Don’t quote us!”

I was able to double-check that exchange via my audio recording of the event, which of course I and any other journalist there was “allowed” to make (wouldn’t be much of a press conference otherwise!); the restriction on the event was that we weren’t allowed to make video recordings, presumably due to the studio’s piracy concerns. Asked for comment, a representative for the Film Society of Lincoln Center confirmed, “We’re going along with the studio’s wishes in that case.”

But you see, “Fincher joked about spoilers at a press conference which, per studio requests, could not be videotaped” doesn’t have quite the same snap as the “typically controlling” line, because somewhere along the line, Fincher acquired this odd reputation as a “control freak.” “Even in an industry full of control freaks, Fincher stands out as obsessive” (Wired, 2011). “Fincher is a known control freak“ (MTV, 2011). “’You’re in charge, but you’re not in control,’ the famously controlling director says” (The Hollywood Reporter, 2011). “Fincher is now a demon on the set, controlling everything…” (The New Yorker, 2010). “The notoriously finicky director is demanding too much control…” (Anne Thompson again, last spring).

The label is not without explanation — Fincher is known for his perfectionism on the set, most famously shooting 99 takes of the opening scene of The Social Network. His proclivity for multiple takes became common knowledge around the time of Zodiac, when a New York Times profile noted “his tendency to test his actors’ patience, stamina and preparation.” The easiest comparison to draw is to Stanley Kubrick, also notorious for his long shoots, multiple takes (particularly during The Shining), and “control” issues (rebuilding New York City streets on London sets during Eyes Wide Shut rather than shooting on location — or leaving his adopted home country).

But labeling these precise, meticulous filmmakers “control freaks” is not only downright silly; it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a director does. Calling them “controlling” is like calling an actor “overly dramatic.” It is quite literally their job to focus on every detail, to create an environment conducive to capturing their vision, and to do it until they get it right. Does Fincher go overboard? Who knows! We’re not there. But what we are able to observe is the fruits of directors’ labor — and Fincher (like Kubrick before him) is clearly doing something that works.

NPH-Perry

“He does a lot of takes,” Tyler Perry explained at that New York Film Festival presser, “But what I realized very early on is that he is seeing everything at once. I don’t think he sees like regular humans. I think he sees everything at once and he’s trying to paint this perfect tableau, and if one thing is out of place, it’s gotta be redone.” Perry should know — he makes films himself (as does co-star Ben Affleck, who joked of working with Fincher, “I wanna be a director, one day”). And oddly, Perry’s not labeled a control freak, even though he literally puts his name in the titles of his films. Neither is Fincher’s pal Steven Soderbergh, who not only directs, but runs his camera and edits as well. That sounds pretty “controlling” to me.

So why does the label stick? Because it’s easy. It’s not hard to guess where it came from; Gadfly’s Justin Geldzahler calls Fincher’s attention to detail a “career-long response to Alien 3,” the debut feature where he had no control whatsoever, and suffered for it. But the stamp of “control freak” is easiest to apply because, unlike many elements of film production, it is visible to the naked eye, in the stories he tells. Fincher pictures from The Game to Zodiac to The Social Network (and, to a lesser extent, Se7en, Dragon Tattoo, and Fight Club) concern antisocial protagonists whose personalities are defined by the ways in which they organize their lives and attempt to control their surroundings. There certainly is a pattern to the work, and there may well be reasons why Fincher is continuously drawn to these characters. That’s an idea worth engaging with — rather than merely dismissing him as a “control freak,” which is lazy, reductive, and intellectually dishonest.

Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire